He delivered two more pitches to the batter before finally hitting his mark, delivering a pitch on the outside corner that was swung on and missed. It was his first strikeout as a starter — and it set the tone for the day.
Two batters later, O’Brien completed a three-up, three-down inning. In his debut, he finished his day on the mound with seven strikeouts over 4.1 innings, allowing only three hits and one earned run.
“It was a lot of fun,” O’Brien said. “I worked really hard for it, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it weren’t for the team behind me. They made a lot of good plays behind me and just helped me.”
O’Brien attended Maiden High School in North Carolina, where he recorded three no-hitters. As a senior, he was named to the All-State team and posted an 8-1 record with a 1.11 ERA. Yet coming out of high school, he was the No. 35 player for the state, according to Perfect Game.
Since getting to UNC in the spring, his head coach Mike Fox says no one has worked harder than him.
“That kid really works,” Fox said. “He’s got an unbelievable work ethic; he’s usually the first one in the gym and the last one to leave.”
He commands a three-pitch arsenal to get batters out, relying on a fastball, changeup and curveball. His fastball topped out at just 86 miles per hour, meaning O’Brien has to rely on his deceptive delivery and his pinpoint control to overpower opponents.
“He works his butt off day in and day out and it shows on the field,” said Michael Busch, who hit his second home run of the season in the loss. “His past few outings in preseason were tremendous. Probably some of the best we’ve had from any of our pitchers and he came out and showed it tonight.”
O’Brien experienced his first turbulence in the third inning, allowing the first two batters to reach base. A sacrifice bunt moved both runners over and the Seahawks had men on second and third with one out.
The next two at bats were the most important of the day for the lefty. He responded like he’d been in the situation before: by recording a strikeout on a foul tip clocked at 85 mph and getting the next hitter to ground out, stranding both runners to leave the inning unscathed.
“Coaches talk a lot about being able to show poise when you’re not in the best situation,” O’Brien said. “I think just channeling poise and being able to have that in that situation helped me a lot.”
After a one-two-three fourth inning, the lefty’s fatigue began to show in the fifth. The first batter reached base on a double, the first extra base hit allowed on the year by O’Brien. The next hitter also recorded a hit, but a strong throw from left fielder Ashton McGee was relayed by O’Brien and sent to catcher Cody Roberts who tagged out the runner at the plate.
That was all for O’Brien. The runner on first scored later in the inning, giving O’Brien his one earned run for the day.
That one blemish does not do justice to the performance from the first-year in his first career start.
The UNC players were not surprised to see that performance from the first-year in the home opener. They got to see just how talented he was first-hand in scrimmages.
“Every time he scrimmaged, he threw like 12 scoreless innings in our scrimmages and our guys kept saying ‘we can’t pick the ball up,’” Fox said.
As O’Brien walked off the mound back to the dugout, he received cheers from the crowd. The fans were not cheering just for the game today, but for the potential they saw in O’Brien.
After watching O'Brien fool hitter after hitter, it felt like the Tar Heels had found a weekday starter — one of the few missing pieces from last year’s talented 49-14 team.
“He’s only going to get better,” Fox said. “We had other options, and it tells you the confidence we had in him as a coaching staff, and I think his teammates did as well.”
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